The Debate

The Japanese Government’s Attack on the Humanities and Social Sciences

A recent edict betrays a stunningly short-sighted and narrow-minded attitude about higher education.

The Japanese Government’s Attack on the Humanities and Social Sciences
Credit: University of Tokyo via

Recent news stories about education in Japan have noted that 26 of the 60 national universities that offer courses in the humanities and social sciences have confirmed they will either close or reduce faculties in these areas. This follows a decree issued by the Japanese government that universities “serve areas that better meet society’s needs” in a letter sent from Education Minister Hakuban Shimomura to all of Japan’s national universities. The letter called on them to take “active steps to abolish [the social sciences and humanities]” or convert them to academic opportunities in the natural sciences.

Some of the country’s most prestigious universities, such as the University of Tokyo and University of Kyoto have refused to comply with the order, and Takamitsu Sawa, president of Shiga University, recently published an op-ed piece in the Japan Times denouncing the ministry’s philosophy, calling its proposals “outrageous” and its leaders “anti-intellectual.” However, several national universities have indicated that they will cease recruiting students to humanities and social science courses and comply with the edict.

The goal expressed by the Abe government is to promote practical vocational education to anticipate the needs of society. But one is left wondering what, exactly, Abe sees as the needs of society beyond economic growth (oh, and economics is a social science that would be eliminated). It is difficult to comprehend how studying human behavior, social organization, culture, and the arts is only tangential to anticipating the needs of society. All organizations involve humans – whether government, industry, the military, or anything else. In order for humans to work effectively and efficiently, they must understand the dimensions of human behavior, must recognize the importance of culture in shaping ideas, and must have the intellectual tools necessary to analyze and address the constant flow of human needs that arise as people work together.

While there is, of course, an important place for vocational education in industrial societies like Japan, and there may well be reasons to shift some of the national universities in Japan to a more vocational orientation, that education should not occur in a vacuum devoid of deep discussions about topics such as art, literature, and ethics. Understanding how to interpret one’s world, how to assess the aesthetics of one’s environment (including the space in which one works), and how to think about interactions with others is fundamental to being human and to being a successful worker/employee and should be addressed thoughtfully in any educational institution – whether or not it is primarily vocational.

There is a certain irony in the Abe government’s attack on the liberal arts, because for some time the government also has been actively promoting exports of the country’s popular culture around the world. What will happen to the future Hayao Miyazakis of Japan – perhaps the most significant icon of contemporary Japanese popular artistic culture around the world – who might attend a national university? Miyazaki attended Gakushin University, which is private, and majored in political science and economics while also participating in the university’s research club on children’s literature (manga). His films, many of which are considered masterpieces both nationally and internationally, show a deep awareness and understanding of the human condition and the nature of conflict, the complexities of human social organization, and the varied ways in which we interpret our world. It is difficult to imagine that his perspective is not at least in part a product of the education he received in economics and political science at university. And, of course, this exploration of humanity comes to us through the powerful aesthetic sensibilities expressed through the worlds created in his drawings.

While gaining vocational training and getting a job is important, good employees are those who can think creatively, understand and interpret the contexts in which they interact with others, and employ an ethical approach to the activities of business and life in general. These are not tangential to vocational training nor to the needs of society, but are central elements in generating a capable and inventive workforce that is able to make any country secure and internationally competitive. Where would Apple be without the aesthetic ideas of Steve Jobs and the designers and engineers who worked for him?

The needs of society, like the needs of individual humans, are not able to be simply calculated on a balance sheet, but involve not only the pragmatics of learning a skill, but equally the pragmatics of learning to live and work with others in a thoughtful, analytical, and ethical manner. Eliminating the social sciences and humanities from national universities represents a stunningly narrow-minded and short-sighted attitude about the purpose and aims of higher education. And it will work against ensuring Japan a strong economic position internationally in the future.

John W. Traphagan is Professor of Religious Studies and Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin.